Ally and the Atlas Experience

by Amber Goslee

As visitors look around my classroom immediately following lunch, they see children at tables, sitting or lying on the floor, rocking in the rocking chair, sifting through the books in the classroom library, and maybe one or two will be asking an adult to listen to them read. Much of the time, music plays softly in the background. It is D.E.A.R. time. Drop Everything And Read. This is a time for the children to take out something of their choice to read and relax. 

Independent reading is a part of the schedule in many classrooms as a specific period of time. It is also a time when many teachers attempt to control the children's reading. They often determine where students read, how long, when, and what they read-perhaps saying no comic books or magazines, or maybe requiring chapter books. My students are free to read just about anything, from comic books and picture books to chapter books and informational books. Some even choose to read the dictionary, Guinness Book of World Records, or the atlas. Since I view D.E.A.R. as a time for students to enjoy reading, that is what I want them to do-be able to enjoy whatever it is they are reading. That freedom along with a flexible teacher seizing the "teachable moment" can have tremendous benefits.

During such a D.E.A.R. period, the kids were reading and, as usual, they could read anything of their choice. Ally decided that she wanted to read the "Atlas" that day. She came up to me shortly after D.E.A.R. had begun and pointed to an area south of Orlando, Florida. "Ms. Goslee, see this is where I went in Florida. Fort Pierce. It is just below Orlando. It is not on this map. It must be too small." 

I replied, "Well, have you looked through the atlas? Maybe there is another map of Florida and you will be able to find Fort Pierce on there." She said she hadn't and asked how she would do that. I directed her to the index and she walked back to her seat. 

I continued what I was doing and a short moment later, I hear her call out from across the room as she gets up and rushes toward me, "Ms. Goslee! I found it. It is here. Fort Pierce." She shows me where it says Fort Pierce in the index and she says it is on page 59. She turns to page 59 and stares at the page for a while. Then she looks up at me with a questioning look. She doesn't know what to do. I ask, "Do you know how to find a city on an atlas?"

"No," she answered back.

"Ahh, well, would you like to know how?"


I ask her to get a piece of scrap paper and say "Do you see where it says longitude and latitude? Write those words down and the numbers that are below them."

She writes them down and then I proceed to explain what they are and how cartographers use them to locate specific points on the globe. I draw her a few diagrams and make gestures around the globe as I describe them. She is very focused. She really wants to know how to do this. Then I parallel the lines on the globe with the lines on the atlas. She seems to be following, so I continue. "Where are those numbers you wrote down?"

She pulls the paper out. I explain that the lines that run north and south are called "longitude" and the ones that run east to west are called "latitude." I tell her that each line has a number, and that is what those numbers she wrote down mean. "Look at what it says for longitude." She reads 80. "Now let's look for it up here," I say as we run our fingers across the top of the page. "It is difficult to read the numbers, but if you look really close you can see them."

"I see them," she says, "I found it! Here is the number we are looking for!" There is excitement in her voice. 

"Ok, now run your finger down that line. The city you are looking for will be along or very near that line." She traces the line with her finger. "Now let us look at the latitude."

"Oh, I get it. We need to find that number over here." She proceeds to look for the number that corresponds with the one she wrote down. "I can't find it," she says with disappointment.

"Ah, Ally. Let us look closely at the numbers. What do you notice 20, 24, 28?" I ask as I point to the numbers next to each line. 

"Oh, it is counting by fours. I see. So if I am looking for 27, it would be about here," she says while moving her finger below 28.

"That is correct," I tell her. "Now run your finger along that imaginary line. Do you know what I mean?"

She runs her finger along it and I say that her city will be along that line somewhere. She is clearly understanding how this works and excitedly says, "Oh, I get it! If I run my finger down this line and across this line, I want to find where the lines come together!" She proceeds to do that and when she does so, I notice that Fort Pierce is right above her fingernail. She looks up at me and asks with some puzzlement, "Now what do I do?" She doesn't realize she is pointing right to her city and I ask her why we started doing this. She says she was looking up Fort Pierce and then looks down at the atlas. Her eyes light up and she looks at me with surprise, "How'd I do that?!" She sees that her finger is right on Fort Pierce and she knows that she did it all on her own. I guided her verbally, but she did most of it on her own and I did not touch her hand or the map. She is very excited about this discovery and is curious to find other cities. She returns to her seat and looks up other cities in the index then proceeds to find them on the atlas. 

I know that she learned how to locate cities because she had an authentic interest in doing so and because I took the time to answer her questions. Time that standardized curricula robs from teachers and students. 

The next day, Ally decided to read the atlas during silent reading time again, eagerly grabbed a sheet of scrap paper, the atlas, and the globe. As I watched her, she would flip to a page in the index, randomly select a city, then write down the city name and its latitude and longitude. Then she would attempt to meet her challenge. Could she find this city that she never heard of somewhere on a map? Her reward was finding that same name on the map. When she did, you could see the excitement on her face. Soon she ran into a problem that she had difficulty solving. She asked me to come over. She was attempting to locate a city that was located at 21 degrees and 55 minutes longitude. Her trouble was that she was ignoring the minutes and did not realize that meant that her city would actually be closer to 22 degrees than 21. So while going back into the index to check that she had copied the correct information down, I pointed out the minutes. "Do you know what those numbers mean?" I knew she did not, and I proceeded to describe them as minutes, and like the minutes on a clock, there are sixty minutes in a degree as there are sixty minutes in an hour. I then asked her to read the numbers she wrote down. I pointed out the 55. She didn't grasp this idea right away, and I explained that 55 is close to 60, so her city is actually closer to the next degree than the one she had listed. She understand this concept very well. (She was probably somewhat confused over the name.) Although she said she understood, she did not "get it" right away and needed further guidance. I asked what degree we were at. She answered. Then I asked how many minutes we were at and she answered. "Remember I said that 55 is close to 60 and that means that the city you want is actually closest to the next degree?"


"If you are at 21 degrees, what is the next degree?"


"Yes, Ally, that is correct. That means your city is closer to 22 degrees than 21 degrees. Let's try that." It was clear she wasn't sure of this, but she was ready to check. 

She went back to the page and looked up her latitude and longitude lines. She traced her finger across the lines. When she came to the longitude line, she shifted her finger closer to 22 degrees. Her eyes lit up as she seemed to realize the validity in my explanation, "Here it is!"

I left her again to check on other students as she continued her search-and-find missions. She was quite successful and proud of her efforts. After a few more minutes I hear, "Ms. Goslee, look, the city is not here," she said worriedly as her finger was pointed in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Africa. "I tried it two times and it is not here." She shows me what she did and I realize her error. In all the other maps she had selected, the lines of latitude she needed were already north or south of the equator. None had both on one map at the same time, so when she looked for a degree, it was always the correct one. In this instance, she saw she needed one degree latitude, and she could find the one degree south of the equator. She was unaware that there was another one degree latitude, that being north of the equator. So it was time to teach her another lesson. 

"Ally, let's look up the latitude and longitude again in the index," I suggest. She does and I point out the "N". "What do you think that stands for?" I ask her.

"North," she replies, not really knowing what that meant. 

"Yes," I begin to explain, "On maps and globes the lines of latitude can be north or south." I realize she may not even know what the equator is so I pull the globe over. "Remember how I said cartographers drew lines on the globe to help them locate cities? When they did that they decided that they had to have a starting number and chose to draw an imaginary line around the center of the earth, one that cuts it in half. This line is called the equator," I explain as I trace the equator with my finger. She is excited at this new knowledge and traces the line as well. I point out the word equator next to the line and that it is zero degrees. "Then the cartographers drew latitude lines north and south of the equator and ..." 

"I get it!" she exclaims, "The N in the back means it is north of the equator!"

"Yes, Ally, that is right." Before locating the city, we find where zero degrees longitude is and that it is named Prime Meridian. She is so excited at this new information, and she discovers yet another line on the globe. 

"What is this line?" she asks pointing to a line I am not familiar with.

"I don't know, Ally. Let us look and see if there is a name along it. The equator and prime meridian are labeled, so this one should be labeled as well." We trace the line with our fingers looking for its name. We discover that it is called the "ecliptic" and I tell her I am not sure what that is, but remember learning about it in astronomy, so we will have to look that up. She makes several observations about the ecliptic and we write the "clues" down. 

Finally, we return to the atlas and finding her city in Africa. We find the equator and this time instead of looking one degree south of the equator, she looks one degree north and finds that she is no longer in the ocean, but right on the city she wanted to find. 

Ally's learning about the atlas does not end here, but continues as the boy next to her was hearing all the questions she was asking and the explanations. His curiosity is peeked a bit. He asks a question about the globe, though I do not remember what the question was because Ally immediately jumped up and looked at me, "Can I show him? Can I tell him?!!" Of course I thought that was a great idea and so she did. I watched them as she started out the very same way I started with her, by explaining that cartographers wanted to be able to locate places on earth and so they drew lines and labeled them latitude and longitude. She captured his full attention as she explained and pointed and he followed and asked more questions. She explained to him latitude, longitude, equator, prime meridian, and more. It was wonderful to watch. Ally knew what she was talking about and he was interested in what she was saying. They continued their explorations together and after several minutes, "Ms. Goslee, Jerome found other lines on the globe. What do these lines mean?" Great! They are continuing to ask questions. This is wonderful! I look at the lines in question. "See, these red ones," she says as she points to lines surrounding the countries in Europe. I explain that those lines indicate the boundaries of different countries. 

Ally can still locate cities on the atlas and when other students have a question with a map, I call Ally over to help them solve their problem first before helping. What she learned in those two days was a result of the freedom to choose what she could read during silent reading time, coupled with an authentic interest in learning how to find a city on an atlas. It was a truly meaningful learning experience to her. 

Ally's atlas experience reminded me of the importance of letting children have more control over what they learn. It also strengthened my belief that standardized instruction and testing is an alien in my classroom-how it attempts to reduce moments like these and "control" when and what students learn; how it consumes a teacher's time with her students; how it divides students and teachers. Had I limited her to reading choices to "chapter books" or in some way control what she read, this opportunity would never have occurred. Likewise, had I pushed her away because it was reading time, not "social studies" time (when longitude and latitude are suppose to be taught) and tried to teach her about longitude and latitude at some other time, separate from genuine interest, she may not have been as successful. Instead, I identified the moment as a potential learning opportunity, took the time to guide her, and she experienced joy along with purpose in learning about latitude and longitude. 

As state-mandated standardized curricula play a greater role in the classroom, teachers may feel so much pressure to teach what is going to be on the test that they forget that their students are children, feeling a need to control every aspect of the day and hope that nothing strays from the plans. Teachable moments become nuisances and learning becomes mechanized. Is that what should education should be about? Turning children into robots to complete tasks so that they can regurgitate information for a test score? Or should it allow for more students to be treated as human beings, make connections, and be able to have opportunities such as Ally and the Atlas Experience?


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